When he first set up an academy in Hyderabad in 2004, he had done so without any fanfare. To quote him, “There was not a single journalist who came to the academy between 2004-2007”. It was only after Saina Nehwal made the quarter-final of the 2008 Beijing Games did the media start to take notice. Something was going on and had the potential of having a lasting impact on Indian sport. P Kashyap’s gold at the 2010 CWG in Delhi helped and then Saina’s 2012 Olympic medal meant Pullela Gopichand was all of a sudden hailed as the new messiah. The Gopi factory, as it is now called, has since produced champions with amazing regularity. Gopi, however, hasn’t changed. The same routine and the same work ethic, he has this amazing ability to be there and yet be distant. Absorb the adulation yet steer clear of it and stay focused on the job at hand. And he clearly is a man on a mission. He wants to give India more medals and won’t stop short. Excerpts from this exclusive conversation with Boria Majumdar:
Boria– We are all calling it a revolution. And you are the one who is at the centre of it all. First, do you agree with the term “badminton revolution” and second how do you see the way forward for the sport in India?
Gopi– To be honest I wouldn’t still call it a revolution. We have seen a surge in interest no doubt but it is not yet a revolution. We are on course and may be it will take a few more medals and a few more super series wins to make sure that a revolution is underway. But yes I do see a bright future for the sport in India. We have a number of players in the top 20 of the men’s game and each of them are capable of beating the best on their day. Srikanth has had a phenomenal year but trust me his best is yet to come. Unlike many others he is a natural and has the ability and potential to dominate the sport like a Lin Dan or Lee Chong Wei. The next few years will define Srikanth’s legacy. Prannoy too is doing very well and can make the top grade. Sindhu and Saina are both up there and with Satwik-Chirag doing reasonably okay in doubles, I have every reason to hope that we will consistently do well in the major tournaments.
Boria– With the super-series finals here in Dubai just round the corner, I have to push you a little more on Srikanth. What separates Srikanth from the rest?
Gopi– It is his ability to play the crunch points better. If you observe closely Srikanth is a very different player once the points touch 16 or 17. The smashes which may have gone out earlier will all be in, he will retrieve every shuttle and all of a sudden he will raise his game a few notches. That’s what makes him such a special player. As I said, if he does justice to his potential he has the ability to win many more super series and major tournaments.
Boria– And Sindhu- she has been hot and cold this year. Are you a tad worried about consistency?
Gopi– Not really. You will not win all the tournaments you play in. But she has consistently beaten the top players, be it Marin, Okuhara, Jung S Hyun and others. If you see she has made multiple semi-finals and has won more than one title. All you want of a player is to see a kind of consistency that was lacking earlier. Sindhu, I can assure you, is at the absolute top rung of world badminton and has the ability to go better than what she did in Rio.
Boria– Saina, since coming back to train under you, has shown glimpses of getting back to her best. Be it the national championship or in the recent tournaments, she has played long matches and has managed to hold up even when the matches have gone deep.
Gopi– Saina has been a top player for long and has the experience of doing well at the biggest stages of all. We are working on her and feel confident that she will have a good 2018. She has shown she can do well since coming back from injury and you have to give it to her for her ability to stay strong and stay focused. It is never easy to come back from an injury and more so after surgery. I like the resilience and character she has shown and feel confident of her coming up with some real good results in 2018.
Boria– If there is any sport the country will be focused on come the 2018 CWG or the Asian Games it will be badminton. That’s the real change in the last few years. Do you agree?
Gopi– Yes totally. When I first set up an academy, no one came over to see what we were doing. Not one journalist wanted to do an interview. Now there is media interest every day. And I think that’s great for the sport. That’s how future champions will feel encouraged to take to the sport, try and be like Sindhu, Saina or Srikanth. While you have to strike a balance between media interviews and training, I must say the kind of interest we have seen off late augurs well for Indian badminton going forward.
Boria– And you Gopi you haven’t changed. You have no social life. You still come to the academy at 4.30am, train players and then again do the same routine in the evening. How do you retain this kind of intensity for decades?
Gopi– I was never a party goer you know. Never. I loved training and training more. This is what I enjoy doing so it doesn’t really matter to me if I don’t have a social life in the conventional sense. But I must say I am grateful to my wife Laxmi and my family for putting up with me and understanding what I want to do for Indian sport. Unless you have support at home it is impossible to do what I am doing.
Boria– Final question- do you think Srikanth and Sindhu are ready to take over as the world’s best?
Gopi– As I said earlier, they have the potential. Whether they are able to translate that into reality we will have to see but there is no doubt both are capable of being the best and winning multiple medals for India in the next few years.